WARNING: Contains guns and blood and depiction of grievous injuries.
Jay Arkwright looked at his watch. He knew that around this time, Mr. Beagle’s hit squad would be nearing the small town of Riverview, where they’d try to get that bastard, who had got away from them one too many times. And to get back at the people who had got Mr. Beagle and Jay in jail.
Normally it wouldn’t have bothered Jay at all. Jay was a professional. Sure, he hadn’t killed that many people during his career – only one, actually – but he was more than prepared to kill more if his boss asked him to. It was usually for the good of the organisation, after all. Jay hadn’t spent that much time as an official hitman, but he had worked as a bodyguard for people in Beagle’s organisation for much longer, and he knew full well what he had got himself into.
It was just a job like any other. It paid well and let him use his skills of handling difficult people and shooting guns for something useful. Jay liked it. And he liked Mr. Beagle’s determination and his way of getting things done. So why did the thought of Beagle sending people to Riverview bother him so much?
It wasn’t the fact that over half the squad were vampires, even though they did make Jay feel a bit uncomfortable. Vampires were a good addition to the organisation, as long as one got over the fact that holy shit, vampires were real. They had become less and less uncommon in bigger cities. They were useful as long as one remembered to keep one’s mouth shut about them where secrecy was needed. So no, it wasn’t the vampires. And it wasn’t the general fact that the squad was on its way to kill and possibly torture people either.
So why, then?
Jay had racked his brain about it and had finally realised that it was because of Amelia Sprigg.
Jay couldn’t deny it; he had been seriously attracted to that woman. She had seemed so genuine and had looked both elegant and sexy in her shiny formal dress, with her round but pretty face and soft curves. Not to mention how kind and enthusiastic she had been. Normally Jay liked his women with a bit more edge, though he had had to admit that Amelia wasn’t all soft either. Walking into the line of fire was definitely edgy, if stupid. Still, she wasn’t the type Jay usually went after. But there… in that bar with those sweet piano tunes in the background, Jay Arkwright had felt something. A genuine attraction that had had the potential to spark into love with time. And with more matching moral codes.
Jay shook his head. He was being stupid. He shouldn’t get so hung up on a woman he’d met twice and with whom he had no future with. He should have just been angry that she had punched him. But even that had just shown that she had attitude, made her even sexier in Jay’s eyes. And now Amelia would probably die horribly because Jay’s boss wanted that idiot thief and some payback for prison.
It felt like such a waste. Jay looked at the blank TV screen front of him, and then at his phone where he had saved the contact information Beagle’s men had dug up in order to find Miss Sprigg and the others Beagle wanted dealt with. He was being so stupid. He should just forget about her and move on. There were plenty of fish in the sea. He repeated to himself that he had never had a chance with Amelia anyway. It was better this way.
He bit his lip and looked at his phone again.
Far away, in the town of Bridgeport, Philippa Honeyrose got a happy feeling in her chest. She smiled. It was the feeling of a job well done.
Novak Sanguine, or – as his passport now said – Flannery Chase, was feeling agitated. It could have been just his normal paranoia, or even the fact that he felt like he was about to fry in his tent. Al Simhara was at least far away from SimNation and – more importantly – from Beagle and his men, but the newly named Mr. Chase had to admit that he wasn’t a fan of such hot climate. It made him feel sluggish and tired. But he was stubbornly determined to learn to deal with the weather, and to make life work in a new country. Nothing he hadn’t done before. He could handle it. Or so he had felt so far. But now his survival instincts that sometimes bordered on morbid sixth sense were telling him that today would suck. A lot. He found himself tossing and turning in the tent he had set up at a lush campsite, where he could pass as a regular, thrill-seeking tourist. In reality, he was waiting for the day to properly dawn so that he could meet up with his newest contact. He needed to establish some kind of way to get money quickly. He needed funds to be able to keep running. And to maybe one day establish some kind of stable life.
He almost chuckled at that.
He wanted to believe that things would go smoothly, but then restlessness and paranoia drove him out of his tent, into the rising sun that coloured the pyramids on the horizon with gorgeous pink.
“Hello, Mr. Sanguine.”
His pulse jumped up into marathon pace in a millisecond. He was ready to go for his gun – something he had made sure to buy as soon as he had the chance – but then he realised that he probably wouldn’t need it. In front of his campfire – which was now lit even though he had made sure to extinguish it after cooking his dinner last night – sat the familiar skinny young man who was also his boss. He took a deep breath in order to calm his racing heart and quickly looked around to see that they were alone and no one had witnessed the kid’s sudden appearance.
“Is this how it’s going to be every time we meet?” he said, ”You almost giving me a heart attack?”
“Not my intention,” Tad Dustpine said in an oddly clipped tone, “Sorry. I need your assistance.”
“You? Need me?” Novak/Flannery said while he dragged a spare folding chair to the fire and sat down, “Why?”
“You are still my champion, are you not, Mr. Sanguine?”
“Champion? Is that what you call it now? Also my name’s Flannery Chase.”
“Ah, of course. Mr. Chase. Is that not a bit… obvious considering people are after you?”
“Oh, well damn, Thanatos, you’re right. Obvious names are so frickin’ annoying!”
“Right. Sorry. Again. I am… I should not even focus on that. This is urgent.”
There seemed to be genuine worry in the Grim Reaper’s voice. He even looked rather shaken. In fact, were the shadows around his eyes even darker than before? They definitely were. Could Death get sick?
“Okay, you know what,” Novak said, “Forget names. Call me whatever you want. Something must really be up. You look like crap.”
“I am trying to fight myself. It is not easy. That is why I need you. Amelia and the others in her house, as well as Miss Leifsdóttir, are about to die.”
Novak stared at Tad for several silent seconds.
“What? Why? How?”
“Violently. I am quite sure that it has to do with the criminals we met in Valley. The men who wanted you dead.”
For a while, they sat in complete silence. Then Novak hid his face in his hands.
He had never wanted innocents to become a part of this. Especially people like Amelia Sprigg. She was a perfectly decent lady. The kind who had been ready to help a thief like him out even when it made her uncomfortable. Novak had thought that he would have been able to keep Beagle and his men off the others’ trail by leaving. Either he hadn’t been quick enough or then Beagle’s men had got some intel on Amelia just from that brief meeting at that damn party.
“That’s… not good.”
“No. It is not. The people who want Amelia and the others dead are already in Riverview. There is a high chance they will succeed in… what they are there for.”
“And you’re asking me to help because…?” Novak let the question hang in the air, “Couldn’t you just explode their heads or something? Yeah, yeah, you can’t interfere too much, but this is kind of your fault.”
“Is it?” Tad asked wearily, “It was your past that caught up with you and with them by proxy. Yes, we were there because of me, but Mr. Beagle was not. And yes, I could have made them forget Amelia and the others, but I… forgot. And at this point it would be…”
“Against your weird rules, as usual.”
“I was going to say frowned upon.”
“And you’d rather let your friends die than face a few frowns? Wow. Talk about spineless.”
“It is not just that… I… these things… are complicated,” Tad fidgeted in his seat. He seemed to be getting sicker by the minute, “I am trying to do my best to help them and still play by the rules. And I have a plan. But I need people. Champions. You work for me, and you have a reason to face these people. They are ultimately after you, after all.”
“So you’re asking me to walk into the arms of hitmen who want me dead? After all this time of running away from them? Yeah, not a good idea.”
“You would have allies. And you would be protected. You still have the Death Flower, do you not?”
“Yeah, but this isn’t the kind of thing I’ve been planning to use it for!”
“I would also be with you.”
“Yeah, sorry, but you just made it clear that you can’t save anyone. And you didn’t exactly fare that well against one gunman back in Valley.”
“Oh, I can assure you that I am much more alert this time,” Tad said, even though he didn’t look alert at all, “I had let myself think too… humanly back then. Right now I am not feeling human at all.”
“Yeah, I can see that. Seriously, this is all you’ve got? Always asking mortals for help in situations you could solve in a millisecond? The Grim Reaper can’t even protect his buddies from a couple of thugs?”
“Well excuse me for having a difficult time breaking billions-year-long habits!”
Novak stared. Did Tad just… sass him? Things were really going badly. Tad’s eyes had narrowed, and despite him looking too pale and too sick, Novak was reminded that it really wasn’t a good idea to piss off Death. And besides, he really did owe Amelia for helping him out and giving him a roof over his head for a while. He sighed. He was getting soft. Soon this kind of charity would cost him his life.
“Okay, so what’s your plan?”
Tad’s eerily pale eyes brightened.
“Oh, that is quite simple! I will just inspire you into action and then take you to Riverview.”
“Action as in… what?”
“Well… helping people of course.”
“Hopefully in a way that will not cause even worse harm.”
“So you don’t have a plan at all?”
“Not outside of giving Amelia and the others some support. A fighting chance.”
They sat in silence for a while.
“Wow,” Novak finally said, “This is probably the worst plan I’ve ever heard.”
He leaned back in his chair.
“Okay, I can’t believe I’m saying this, but when exactly does it start?”
Tad smiled sadly.
“It is already happening.”
The pain was so intense that Vanja almost blacked out immediately after hitting the floor. Her entire torso was on fire, her blood flowed onto the floorboards from the hole in her abdomen.
She could see the faint form of the burly man through the fog in her head, caught a flash of metal in the man’s hand. Vanja coughed up blood and her mouth started almost automatically forming words. The man stepped forward, and Vanja could imagine that the vampire woman wouldn’t be far behind.
Vanja closed her eyes and shouted out a protective word.
Lights flashed, and Vanja could hear a muffled shout and the slamming of her door as the charms she had put around her home and store shut her entire house off from intruders by creating a magical shield around it.
If Vanja hadn’t been in so much pain, she would have been proud of how well it worked. Her attackers were outside and wouldn’t get in without some seriously advanced magic.
It was a good thought to end with. Vanja slumped into a heap on the floor. She knew she had healing potions behind her counter in case she got hurt. And now – as her mind rather needlessly pointed out – she was hurt. Badly. She’d been shot, and the bullet had torn through her insides. If she didn’t get to her potions, she would probably bleed out quite quickly. Or possibly suffer an organ failure.
She tried to drag herself up and towards the counter, but her arms refused to support her and her legs were even more useless. She was exhausted already. And really, her quickly quieting brain reasoned, was it even that bad? It was an underwhelming way to go, sure, but at least she wouldn’t be alone anymore.
“Linus…” she gasped, “I’ll see you… soon…”
That was all she could say before blood filled her mouth again. She coughed and let blackness swallow her.
Vanja’s eyes snapped open.
Oh. Right. Of course he’d be here.
She blinked and her vision was sharper again. The pain had dulled, but it was still there, so intense that it made breathing difficult. But at least she was still breathing.
“You…” Vanja said with spite, but couldn’t muster up any more words.
“I would not have imagined you to give up like this,” Death said, “But we all have to go someday, do we not? I am thankful for all the help you could give me.”
Give up? Me? Oh, hell no!
Vanja tried to get up again, and this time managed to get to her hands and knees. The pain made her want to scream or throw up, but all she got out was a bloodied gurgle.
I’m not giving up! Not in front of you!
“Your stubbornness is admirable,” Death said. Vanja faintly realised that he was sitting on her counter like he had no care in the world. Smug bastard.
Vanja started crawling towards the counter. She wouldn’t quit! Her beloved Linus would have to wait for a while longer. She would see him when she figured out how to get him back to life. And for that she needed to stay alive. Linus needed her to stay. And her pride refused to go in such an undignified manner after she had on several occasions gloated how she would conquer death.
“I have been following your research with interest, did you know that?” Death went on, “Ever since you summoned me just to declare that you did not need my help. What was it… seven years ago? It was bold. Very refreshing.”
Vanja scrambled forward, gritting her teeth and wishing she would’ve had enough air in her lungs to tell Death to be quiet. His talking was not helping! It was just making her more and more annoyed. He was trying in vain to distract her with chit-chat while he obviously waited for her to draw her last breath. Well, he could keep waiting; Vanja was not dying today! She reached her counter and grabbed one of the bottles of healing potion she kept ready in case of attacks or a volatile product. So far she hadn’t needed any of them very often, but right now she was glad her overly orderly and somewhat paranoid mind forced her to always keep her stash fresh and functional.
Now she just hoped that the potion was enough to heal a gunshot wound at least enough for her to get back on her feet.
On the counter, Tad shifted. And for a moment Vanja realised as an afterthought that he looked quite terrible.
“It will not stop here,” he said, “The people outside are giving up trying to get in, because they have other targets to take care of tonight as well. They want Amelia and the others dead too. It looks quite bad, but perhaps you all will prove crafty enough to survive.”
He paused when Vanja took a frantic gulp of her potion. Vanja gasped for air as her stomach started burning in a different way than before.
“Screw… you… Death…” she coughed out.
She could have sworn she saw Tad smile before she finally lost her fight with the darkness.
Amelia had promised herself that she would (once again) get Tad to talk about what was bothering him so much. Hopefully sooner than later. Things seemed to have got even worse after their talk by the river. And now Tad was getting sick. Probably. Or maybe not. The whole thought was so surreal that Amelia couldn’t wrap her head around it. Cosmic beings couldn’t get sick, right? Then again, Tad had been hurt by a bullet before. So maybe he could get sick too. Maybe it had something to do with him being so human now.
Amelia wasn’t sure how it all worked. Even after all this time and all these explanations, the nature of her friend remained mysterious. Amelia supposed that mortals weren’t even supposed to make perfect sense of it all. Still, she would have to try. When Tad came back, that is. Until then all she could do was wait. And get that tea she had promised.
Amelia surprised the Ley Line Nexus by appearing on their doorstep late in the evening, but it was a happy surprise. Brigitte beamed like a sun when she saw Amelia.
“Oh, how lovely to see you, dear!” she said.
“I hope I’m not a bother?” Amelia said.
“Of course not! It’s been such a quiet day that some surprises are more than welcome.”
Hadn’t Tad claimed that the Nexus were busy before this hour?
“Is something wrong?” asked Mimosa, who had followed Brigitte, her eyes glinting in the shade, “I heard your worry all the way inside.”
“It’s nothing, really,” Amelia said, “Just some friend… stuff.”
“Oh. Okay. I thought it had to do with… well, the fact that there’s an ominous scent in the air tonight. And by that I mean I smell vampire blood. There usually aren’t any vampires here. Other than me.”
“They smell aggressive. I don’t like it.”
“I smell it too. Did you walk here, Amelia?”
“I don’t think you should walk home alone. They might be strays or completely innocent, but vampires sneaking into small towns can also mean they’re hunting.”
Amelia suddenly felt cold.
“They hunt people?”
“They shouldn’t,” Brigitte said, “It’s not allowed. But sadly every larger group has its rule breakers.”
She suddenly smiled.
“Oh, but where are my manners? Come on in, Amelia!”
Amelia suddenly remembered why she was at Brigitte’s door.
“Right. I actually just came here to get some herbal tea from Basil. Then I’ll go back home to watch a film.”
“Oh. Well that sounds lovely. BASIL! GET AMELIA SOME OF YOUR TEA!”
Amelia wondered if she would ever get used to the Nexus people spontaneously yelling at each other from different rooms. Brigitte turned back to Amelia once Basil’s footsteps had gone towards the kitchen.
“And don’t worry about the vampires. Mimosa and Dewey can walk you home. And really, they might just be strays, like I said. Or even visitors! I like to stay positive about these things even when my nose says otherwise.”
Mimosa giggled shyly.
“I wish I could be so optimistic.”
A few moments later Amelia was walking home with a bag of herbs and with two friends. Amelia preferred not to think that there might be dangerous vampires roaming about. She wanted to cling to Brigitte’s – and her own – optimism. But with the threat of vampires and with Tad acting so strange, Amelia had a bad feeling that something was about to happen. Something scary. Despite not wanting to think of Dewey and Mimosa as bodyguards, Amelia had to admit that having them around was comforting.
“They’re not too close yet,” Mimosa said quietly, “If we keep to this road, we should stay out of their way.”
“Good. Let’s hope they stay far away from our route. And that they’re not here to hunt,” Dewey said and grimaced, “I don’t know what Bridge was thinking… I’m retired from this crap! And I’d like to stay that way!”
Amelia tried to smile encouragingly.
“Well, let’s hope you don’t have to… un-retire. But you know, I really appreciate you coming with me.”
“Yeah, well, I wasn’t about to just leave you to walk home alone. Or just with Mimi. It’s good to move in groups when vampires are around. Stay focused.”
Dewey seemed to have slipped quite naturally into some kind of professional vigilance. Amelia wondered if he had been like this all the time when he’d been working as a monster hunter.
They walked in silence in the suddenly much more oppressive darkness and made it all the way to the bridges before Amelia’s phone rang. Dewey and Mimosa were both startled by the mellow Spanish rhythms, and Dewey especially seemed to be ready to attack anyone or anything that moved. His muscles tensed, but relaxed immediately again. It wasn’t the relieved kind of relaxation, though. It was more the “I’m ready to act but it would be stupid to lock myself into place with tense muscles” -kind of relaxation. Even Amelia, who knew roughly as much about martial arts as a snake knew about tap-dancing, could notice it.
Amelia picked up the phone and mouthed “sorry” at her two jumpy companions.
Amelia immediately frowned. She recognised the voice, and it didn’t bring good memories to her mind.
“Yeah. It’s me. You okay?”
“I am… but… why are you calling? You…”
“Yeah, yeah. I acted like a jerk, to put it mildly. I know. But this is not about that. I have to tell you… look, you’re in danger. Boss didn’t like getting put in jail. He wants the thief who was with you, and he wants payback.”
Amelia’s stomach suddenly froze. She froze too, and both Mimosa and Dewey snapped into hyper-alertness.
“Wh-what?” Amelia managed to whisper.
“They’re probably already there. Boss’s men. Even some vampires. I think they’ll shoot the witch-woman first, and then they’ll go to your house. If you’re in there, then get the hell out before it’s too late.”
Amelia’s heart skipped a beat and then started racing. Jay’s words got stuck in her head in a terribly ominous loop.
Shoot. Witch-woman. House. Before it’s too late. Shoot. Witch. Shoot. House. Too late.
“I…” Amelia started shakily, but Jay had already hung up.
Author’s Note: I’d like to give a special thanks to my fiancé, who is not only awesome in general, but also thought of Jay calling Amelia and therefore sort of gave this previously one-note side character some kind of an arc. And he also helped me tweak the next chapter so that it made much more sense and wouldn’t make the end of this story arc feel too repetitive (I hope).
I hope you guys enjoy this even when it gets more plotty and violent for a bit. Have a great time you all!